Analysis Of Some Interesting Situations From The West Brom Game – Part II

March 30, 2011

Before I begin, I just want to take the opportunity thank everyone who sent me supportive emails over the last couple of weeks. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to reply to everyone individually. The Gooner empire is going through a difficult period and everyone has their own way of dealing with it. There was a time when I got actively involved in the discussions but now it seems pointless to go through the same arguments over and over again. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing but just that I’ll try to keep it about football and analysis of the details of the game rather than opinions on individuals even though that seems to be the popular thing to do at the moment.

Coming back to the game against West Brom, I wanted to talk about a couple of other observations I had.

 

Click on the image to view a larger version

The first image is from the build up to the moment when Van Persie hit the bar and Ramsey couldn’t score from the rebound.

What I noticed about this move was that Clichy actually made a run on the inside channel. Full-backs these days don’t do this on a regular basis and I guess there must be a good reason for that. But there are times when I feel such runs can be extremely useful in opening the opposition up. Evra is one player who does create and utilize such situations rather well.

I was happy that Clichy moved in with the ball from the Arsenal half before playing it to Arshavin on the wing and continuing on his run. Hopefully we will see more of this from Sagna as well. Both Frenchmen did use this tactic and excelled in the 07-08 season but that used to be in a 4-4-2 formation.

In that year the understanding between the wide midfielders and the full-backs was impeccable. If this game is a sign that those movements are coming back it can only lead to a massive improvement in Arsenal’s attacking options.

There was another move in that game which gave me some food for thought. This came just after the half-hour mark. Clichy got the ball on the left inside the Arsenal half. He moved forward with it and played it to Van Persie who had come deep and wide. The Dutchman rolled it first time to Arshavin, who squared it to Ramsey in acres of space. The following snapshot captures this moment.

 

Click on the image to view a larger version

It’s interesting to note that when Ramsey is about to get the ball there is a great deal of space behind the WBA left-back and central defender. Nasri is free, wide on the right but is also pretty static. Sagna is jogging forward.

Now I’m not sure why Nasri didn’t make a run into this space. It should not have been too tough for Ramsey to find a pass into such a vacant area. Granted, at least one of the defenders would have gotten back to track the Frenchman, but with this kind of space who wouldn’t back Samir to dribble past his man?

I’m fairly certain if it had been Cesc in place of Rambo, Nasri would have been off in a flash. We have seen that combination work quite often. So was this opportunity missed because Ramsey hasn’t played regularly and Nasri didn’t know what to expect?

It’s difficult to say exactly what went on. There are many players involved and each has multiple decisions to make. Any one, if out of sync, could break the move.

In this case what eventually happened was that Rambo took a couple of touches while running square. Then he passed it across to Sagna who’d moved forward. Ultimately the winger and full-back were hemmed into a blind alley.

 

Click on the image to view a larger version

Arsenal get into such positions on the wings quite often. Very rarely does something come out of it and when it does it’s usually due to some individual magic by Cesc, who always seems to be around when needed.

Those who’ve been reading my match reports regularly will know that I often talk about switching flanks at pace or moving the ball at a faster tempo. The above situation is a classic example where moving the ball from the left to the right without many touches could have led to an incisive attack. But for that to happen all the players need to be on the same page and that’s not easy to achieve when there are so many changes to the starting eleven due to injuries and other reasons.

In such cases the functional approach of Fergie and other managers could come in handy. It’s not easy to get in behind teams that are defending deep. If the wide players are under instructions to be alert for such runs when the ball is on the other flank it could speed up the moves. Not only would it lead to more threatening moments, it will also create space for the full-back to run into thereby creating two good options for the man on the ball. As I said in the previous article, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cesc, and even Rosicky are capable of finding the runner when they have that kind of space and time on the ball in the middle of the park.

While it can’t be completely eliminated, such tactics will also reduce the number of times the Gunners run into cul-de-sacs on the wings before passing it backwards.

I want to end with a disclaimer which seems very important in the current climate. Such articles are not meant to prove that Wenger is tactically clueless or that some players don’t know what they are doing. They’re certainly not intended to imply that I can see certain things on the pitch that the manager, his staff, or the players can’t. Only the extremely ignorant can fool themselves into believing such self-indulgent notions.

Football is a dynamic game and a lot goes on that we tend to miss. I’m just trying to discuss some observations and I have no doubt the coaching staff and the players do the same. It could be that what they try doesn’t always work out. It could also be that they might have a genuine blind spot somewhere or a completely different way of looking at these things.

Personally, I’m off the opinion that Arsenal could do with some changes/additions to the coaching staff. I also feel there is room for the team to improve on the tactical front. But I try not to disrespect the people who have been at the club for years and have worked hard sincerely. And I never assume it’s as simple as saying “use more width”, “put in more crosses”, and stuff like that. That only works in pundit-land not in real world football management.


Birmingham City And The Definition Of Malicious Intent

January 4, 2011

Arsene Wenger has talked a lot about tackling. Invariably the discussion gets hijacked by clueless hacks and pundits who convert that into an Arsenal V Rest of the League debate and take pride in highlighting one or two poor tackles by Arsenal players.

According to a number of morons who have the privilege of influencing public opinion, Arsenal are just as bad as any other team when it comes to tackling. These half-wits honestly think that the card count this season actually proves their point!  Leaving aside the fallacy of that argument, I want to focus on one issue that Arsene keeps talking about but is rarely heard.

Allow me the liberty of paraphrasing Wenger’s message. Based on what I’ve understood, Le Boss is against bad tackles irrespective of the player or the team that commits such a tackle. He is in favour of a physical game where the referee is strong and protects the talented players from getting injured. Wenger does not want a ban on tackling per se; he just wants to see good quality tackling being promoted and poor, dangerous, and at times malicious tackling being stamped out.

In this regard, Arsene has been very consistent and has often apologized for a mistimed tackle by one of the Arsenal players. Here is where it gets tricky. As no one can get into the head of the player, how do we know the perpetrators intent? When is a bad tackle simply mistimed? When is it malicious and reckless?

While I accept the possibility that an honest tackle can break a leg and the incident could be pure bad luck, it’s hard to accept all horrendous tackles being classified as ‘lacking intent’ or ‘honest but mistimed attempts’. Some teams have realized that they can hide behind this excuse and go out to cause significant damage to the opposition. In Arsenal’s last game, Birmingham City gave us numerous examples of just what is wrong with English Football.

Let’s look at Roger Johnson’s tackle on Cesc Fabregas.

 

Leg-breaker?

After looking at that snapshot, no one can argue that it wasn’t high, studs-first, and consequently extremely dangerous. It wasn’t a late tackle as the Birmingham defender got the ball so the next question is, was this tackle clumsy or malicious?

In order to answer this question we need to ask another one. What was Roger Johnson trying to do? The answer to that question will help us establish a better context for judging the actions of the man in Blue. We can do this by observing the play just before the tackle. The following image will help.

 

What is Roger Johnson trying to do?

If you’ve seen the game/video of this incident, you might recall that this tackle came about after a poor touch by the defender put him in a spot of bother. As we can see above, if Cesc had won the ball and hadn’t been taken out, RvP and Nasri would have had a great run at goal with only Scott Dann (outside the image on the left) between them and the goal. So it’s safe to say Johnson was trying to break up the attacking opportunity, which is fair enough.

The next question we need to ask relates to the technique of the defender. Why did Johnson go studs first and what was he trying to achieve with his tackle?

As we can see in the snapshot above, and given the angle at which Johnson went in, it seems clear that he wasn’t really trying to win possession or pass to a team-mate as there was no Birmingham player behind Fabregas. As it turned out, the ball went towards Djourou and the Blues would have conceded possession even if it had been a fair challenge.

So we have to wonder why Johnson didn’t go for the ball with his laces or instep. He could have swung his foot with his studs facing the ground or away from the opponent. He would have achieved the same purpose even with that technique and there would have been no real injury threat even if he caught the opponent in the process. In fact, if he went for the ball with his laces, the defender could have passed the ball towards Bowyer.

To summarize, the Birmingham player could have used different technique to achieve a similar result or better but chose to go in high and studs-first. To me, that is a classic example of “leaving your foot in” or “letting them know you’re there”. Roger Johnson didn’t want to break Fabregas’ leg but he wanted to make an early impact on the best midfielder in the Premiership. I rate that as malicious intent.

I might have dismissed this as a one-off if it had been an isolated incident. But anyone who saw the game will agree that there were many other ‘physical’ moments in the game. Let’s analyze this challenge by Bowyer on Sagna in a similar manner.

 

Both have an equal chance of winning the ball?

At the moment when the above snapshot was taken, Sagna is on the ground and Bowyer is in a good position to win the ball. His weight is on his left foot and the right foot is in the air. All he has to do is stretch towards the ball and knock it away. Similarly, Sagna just has to swing his left leg to make an attempt to win the ball.

 

Sagna goes for the ball, Bowyer for the man!

The Frenchman does just that and wins the ball while the Birmingham player raises his foot quite like a horse would raise its hoofs when the animal wants to attack someone. If you actually think from a technique point of view, it’s very difficult to understand just what Lee Bowyer is trying to achieve here.

 

A geometry lesson might have helped?!

The shortest distance for him would have been the straight line I’ve drawn at the bottom of the image. That would have given him the best chance of winning the ball if he actually wanted to. Instead, the Birmingham hard-man raised his foot up and brought it down.

Football is a game where tackles can be won or lost in a fraction of a second. Bowyer has been around for a long time and he knows this all too well yet he chose to go for the stomping action.

 

"Leave Your Mark", they say!

By the time Lee Bowyer landed on Sagna’s knee the ball was out of the frame. It is interesting to note that the Birmingham man actually twisted his leg a bit and I’m really thankful for that act of mercy if I can call it that!

If Bowyer had brought his foot straight down (see the second last image above), his studs would have penetrated the Arsenal defenders skin and might have caused serious damage to his ligaments and other tissue.

These observations strengthen my belief that the Birmingham player wanted to leave his mark without really having the intent of breaking a leg or causing serious injury. The problem with such attempts is that it’s not always under control and the risk of a horrific accident is much higher than from a mistimed but honest tackle.

Arsene Wenger does not have a problem with tackling but he has a problem when opposition players go out to target their Arsenal counter parts. The matter goes out of hand when the ref turns out to be blind or impotent.

I accept the argument that no one wants to break a leg but it’s pretty obvious these players want to inflict ‘some’ pain. Unfortunately, they cannot always control the extent of pain/injury that they cause.

I don’t normally agree with Graham Poll but in this case he got it right.

Incredibly, he was allowed to stay on the field after a disgraceful stamp on Sagna before raking his studs down the Arsenal defender’s Achilles. Both incidents appeared pre-meditated and intended to cause maximum harm.

The FA are said to be looking at both incidents. Let’s hope they find a hitherto unseen strength and give him at least a six-match ban.

There is no doubt the fouls were pre-meditated and intended to cause harm, maximum is debatable. If the FA actually want to improve the English game they must ban Bowyer for six games at the very least, although I’d personally prefer to see him banned for the rest of the season. That would send a very strong message to other teams in the league that they cannot hide behind the “he’s not that kind of a player” excuse when the evidence is damning.

On a side note, it was fun to hear McLeish initially giving the excuse – “he did not see it”, and later refusing to comment on the incident on the grounds that it is under review. The Birmingham manager knows what a horrific challenge that was and I’ve a sneaky feeling it was closely related to his pre-match instructions. Will we ever know? I guess not.

Unfortunately, there are very few people who actually like to look at the details and ask serious questions. Here is what a pundit on MotD said,

You’re playing Arsenal and you think let’s make it extremely difficult without, you’d hope, crossing the line.

Speaking about the Johnson tackle the same pundit said,

It’s a really, really strong challenge but he does go for the ball here.

Could he have done any worse if he actually wanted to trivialize the whole issue!?

In conclusion, this game gave us a clear definition of malicious intent in football.

Malicious Intent can be seen when football players choose to tackle in an inefficient manner, with poor technique even when they have better, and at times easier, options available, in order to specifically inflict some sort of a physical blow on the opponent. Such a tackle is not intended to cause serious injury but the extent of harm inflicted is often outside the control of the player making the tackle.

From now on I’ll keep an eye out for such tackles and will try to point them out whenever possible. Any opinions or observations on this topic are most welcome.


Arshavin, Walcott, Rosicky, Nasri – Who should start?

November 8, 2010

Based on the comments left on the match analysis after the last game, I’m guessing many gooners were unhappy with the choice of Nasri on the left. They’d have preferred Arshavin. Based on the Russian’s cameo in the final half hour and the Frenchman’s hard working yet uninspiring initial display, obviously with the benefit of hindsight, this seems like a valid point.

I’m not completely convinced by that argument as I feel Arshavin and Walcott on the wings would have left us exposed defensively. Nonetheless, it presents an excellent topic for discussion as Wenger will have to make some tricky choices because right now we have 4 players – Arshavin, Walcott, Nasri, and Rosicky – all in good form, competing for two spots. And I’m not even considering the likes of Vela, Eboue, and JET. No disrespect to them but when the big guns are available they will always be on the fringes.

Among those four, Arshavin, when he plays, will probably be on the left. Similarly, Walcott will be on the right. I don’t see either of them being that effective on the other flank.

Yes there is an argument that Arshavin could play centrally, but we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons that Wenger doesn’t like that and I’d like to believe he’s given that some thought and discarded the option for valid reasons.

I’m sure we’d all like to see Walcott on the left/centre emulating the feats of Henry but I can’t see that happening right now. Maybe in a couple of years after Theo learns to control the ball better.

So for now I’ll go forward with the assumption that Arshavin and Walcott will play on the left and right respectively. Rosicky and Nasri, as we’ve seen time and again, are far more flexible and can do a job anywhere in midfield.

So the possibilities are – Arshavin with any one of the three on the right, Walcott with any one of the three on the left, or with Rosicky and Nasri on either flank.

The Russian and the Englishman make an explosive combination. As I said above, I feel it’d leave us defensively weak on both flanks, but I will acknowledge this pair was brilliant against Blackpool and pretty good against Blackburn. Should we take more of a gamble on them, especially in home games? Will it add the pace, directness, and urgency that we need to break teams down early on?

Then there is the choice of picking either Arshavin or Walcott. Obviously form and fitness will be an issue but considering that right now both are in equally good shape, Arsene will have a tough choice to make.

Against Newcastle Wenger went with Theo (perhaps Arshavin had still not recovered completely from the virus) but it didn’t work out. Enrique and Gutierrez did an excellent job of denying him any space.

On the other flank Nasri wasn’t able to create much either. Would Rosicky have done better? Based on what I’ve seen Arsene picks Nasri whenever the Frenchman is fit and doesn’t need a rest. This frequently leads to changes in his position.

Clearly, Wenger thinks this is not a problem and I don’t have hard evidence to argue against that but I’d certainly prefer if Nasri was given one wing and time to adapt in that position. By that logic I’d always play Nasri on the right and Rosicky on the left. One of them might have to come central when Cesc is missing or rested but that’s a different issue.

Effectively, it would be Arshaivn/Rosicky with Walcott/Nasri leading to four different combinations.

The final choice would depend on the opposition, venue, and tactics.

For instance, at home we could go with a somewhat riskier but far more attacking 23-14 combination. In the bigger games we could have the more technical and defensively stronger 7-8 pairing.

Tactical decisions could also make a difference. For example, Newcastle were clearly much stronger on their left than they were on their right, both defensively and offensively. In such a case it would be better to have a technical, hard working player like Nasri on our right with Arshavin exploiting their relatively weaker flank where he’d get more space.

In contrast, there could be other teams like Bolton or Blackburn who have a weak left back. Walcott could terrorize them all day long. We could pick Arshavin or Rosicky on the other side depending on the venue.

Then there are games like the upcoming visit to Molineux where it’s hard to say whether the hosts will be stronger on the right or the left. One could say that Jarvis provides a strong threat down the left but dealing with him will be down to Sagna and I’m confident the Frenchman will deal with the threat. The choice of the attackers would depend on the quality of the fullbacks but in the case of Wolves it’s difficult to say one is really better than the other. In such cases the best option would be to rotate so that we have a fresher/sharper attacking player in the starting line-up.

Walcott has played twice in the last week so it would be best to give him a breather and have him on the bench as an impact sub. Arshavin should start on the left and based on my reasoning mentioned above Nasri should start on the right. Of course, there is always the injury angle and that could keep the Frenchman out. In that case Wenger might have to pick Theo for his third game in a week or shift Rosicky to the right.

I just read everything I’ve said so far and realized these are far more complicated decisions than I’d initially realized. There are just too many factors involved but these choices are critical to the shape and balance of the team. As we saw against Newcastle, once they closed our attacking options on the right we looked bereft of ideas and lacked creativity.

By now you must have picked up the fact that I don’t have a definitive opinion on this issue. It can be argued in many ways and it’s really difficult to say one choice is better than the other without the benefit of hindsight.

Of course, Arsene is paid big money to make such decisions so he doesn’t have an excuse for getting it wrong but it does give us plenty to talk about. Can you make a case for the choices on the flanks?